On Water and Cell Phones: Which is a More Basic Human Right?


By Dr. Eric Silverman

Most of us today have great difficulty imaging a world without our mobile phones.  My own kids are utterly baffled by the fact that my spouse and I grew up in a non-digital world of pay phones—a world where the internet was not literally at our fingertips.  How, they ask, did we survive?  We did!

But my kids have never asked about water.  Indeed, I hazard a guess that everybody reading this blog takes it for granted that they have regular, constant, ever-present access to clean water.  We are surrounded by clean water.  The stuff flows everywhere!  And it’s clean.  We scarcely think twice about bathing, drinking, cooking, and cleaning with it.  It is, for those of us who dwell in the developed world, a basic fact of life.  No, it is a basic human right.

How disturbing to read, then, a recent report by the United Nations that more people worldwide have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet!  Says the report:

Of the world’s seven billion people, six billion have mobile phones. However, only 4.5 billion have access to toilets or latrines – meaning that 2.5 billion people, mostly in rural areas, do not have proper sanitation. In addition, 1.1 billion people still defecate in the open.

Indeed, it seems that the world today values the right to wireless conversation more than the right of children to survive to adulthood:  “We can reduce the cases of diarrhea in children under five by a third simply by expanding the access of communities to sanitation and eliminating open defecation… In fact, diarrhea is the second largest killer of children under five in the developing world and this is caused largely by poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene.”

We all know that cell phones and water do not mix.  Just ask anybody whose kid has accidentally left the phone in a pants pocket, and tossed the garment in the wash.  But for 1.5 billion people, water and cell phones do not mix in an altogether different, more tragic manner.  Wireless technology is wonderful, even magical—the hallmark of the 21st century.  But wouldn’t clean water for everybody be equally wonderful?

Dr. Eric Silverman is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the American Studies and Psychology/Human Development departments at Wheelock College.  He employs a binocular approach to teaching and research that tacks between American culture and other societies, especially in regard to dilemmas of globalization


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  1. I mentor a South African teen living in a settlement without water and toilets; we communicate across the world through text, email and calls via his cell phone. It is remarkable how this modern technology has expanded his knowledge and perspective about life, problems and opportunities in his country. As information is power, hopefully all the people living with mobile phones will be able to make connections and press for solutions to the lack of clean water and sanitation. Mobile technology has brought the world together; now it must foster solutions to critical problems.

    • Thanks for the reply, Michael. I’m keen to learn more about how mobile technology has helped you and Mtuseni communicate about possible solutions to water and other problems in his settlement!